Shahrazad at the MFA!

img_2339I was browsing the Islamic art gallery at the MFA and this image immediately reminded me of our favorite heroine. Here we see a Persian noble woman reading, which instantly called to mind Shahrazad’s introduction (the Haddawy translation listing her academic credentials, not the Europeans describing her perfect proportions). I like to think this could be her, being the exemplary woman of the Middle East here in Boston yet again!


Princess Jasmine’s New Look: The Changing Image of Shahrazad in the West

Disney fans were in for a surprise when Princess Jasmine’s new costume was revealed at Disney parks recently. Many fans were not too happy with the changing of her iconic crop top and pants ensemble to a more modest dress. Disney cites concerns from parents that Jasmine’s outfit was too revealing for their motivation to change.

However, Disney has given themselves an opportunity. Jasmine’s new dress is more similar to something an Arabian princess might have actually worn. Perhaps they could charm their old fans and win over some new ones by adopting this argument to defend the wardrobe change.

Although the reason might have just been to appeal to parents desiring more conservative dress for the princess their daughters look up to, this big change in one of the Western world’s most popular images of the Nights shows a shift in how readers/viewers are seeing Shahrazad. The previously sexualized, mysterious figure is adopting a more authentic presentation that better reflects Arab culture. Likewise, Princess Jasmine is intelligent, strong and outspoken, countering the image of the Arab woman as an oppressed figure.

I think the outfit change is positive. Not because girls can’t show a little skin, but because, especially today, the image Americans and other westerners have of the Arab world needs to be positive and authentic. The Arab woman is yet to find her best light in our society, and Princess Jasmine might be an excellent avenue for her to do so.

My Opinions on Burton

Personally, I have taken a liking to Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, and not just because of his lengthy title. He is not always successful in giving Arabs credit where credit is due, but for a Victorian-era white guy, I think he’s a pretty decent translator. I think his motives are more pure than Galland and he does a much better job of providing a more authentic picture of the Nights as they were meant to be read. I think he genuinely wants to generate an interest in the Arab world among westerners and encourage them to respect and appreciate its culture.

Part of the reason he was able to produce a more authentic version than Galland was his way of getting around issues of “taste.” He published to a private club in order to avoid laws that would force him to alter or omit a large portion of the story under Victorian British rule. He prized authenticity over how many readers he could get, perhaps because he was not the first European to provide a translation and there was already a large group of people familiar with the story and eager to read his more “complete” version.

What I like most about Burton is that he did not eliminate Gallands “additions.” He considers any story told with the nights to be an important part of its evolution; whether they were part of the “original” or not. I think Burton gave us an opportunity to read a respectful and authentic text regarding the Arab world while incorporating the Western concept of the Arab world, which also plays a key role in Arab identity. His hybrid text is entertaining, easy to read AND mostly authentic, which is why it has become my favorite of all the versions we have studied.

He also has a really great screw you attitude that I tend to appreciate in my authors, but that’s beside the point.

Work in the Nights

This is my Thesis paragraph for my paper…hopefully I’ve touched on something important and valuable. The paper continues by examining certain professions and the different “currencies” mentioned in the introduction. I draw on the Story of the Hunchback, the Porter and the Three Ladies, a bit from Kamar al-Zaman and most importantly from Sindbad.

The importance of work is an ever-present theme in The Arabian Nights. Since the work is likely a collection of tales from many different cultures ranging from India to Persia to Arabia to Egypt; readers can observe the high value placed on work by all of these societies. Most characters are not even identified or referred to by name, but by their professions, such as in the story of the Hunchback. Throughout Shahrazad’s tales, stories are used as a form of currency when characters are bargaining for their lives or buying more time, much like the narrator herself. Work is often the means to obtain both literal money and this figurative currency, so its importance is increasingly emphasized throughout the tales.

Post-Colonial Traits in The Nights

During our class discussion on Friday, I was really struck by the typical post-colonial traits and the role they play in the 1001 Nights, particularly the role of voicelessness. The woman in pieces is unable to speak, thus there is no justice. This can parallel the voicelessness of Arabs who were objectified by European Orientalists. Just as the translators became the voice of the Arabs that was heard, although not necessarily the most truthful. The men in this tale are the only accessible voices, even though none of them are able to tell the full story in truth.

Another important trait is hybridity. I was thinking about this in what makes the Nights so able to endure and be prevalent in so many different cultures. Although many translations distort the stories and cause the circulation of false, exaggerated or stereotyped images; it makes the stories that much stronger. The infusion of other cultural elements by translators makes the tale more suitable for different audiences around the world.

It is important to acknowledge where the story really comes from and which parts may be Western fantastical interpretations when we are reading the European translations, but the changes made by Western translators and the Nights’s adoption of other cultural traits might be the very reason the work is so famous and widely studied.

Bawdy Tales

There’s something very European about the bawdy tales. I think I’m noticing it because I’m a fan of Gregory Chaucer and the structure of the Nights and the varying types of stories reminds me a great deal of The Canterbury Tales. The description of feasts, settings, and language used in Friday’s stories reads almost like Middle English for me. It even includes “eths” and the sort of vocabulary we usually reserve for knights, Shakespeare and the like.

It’s because of this very European-ness that I think Haddawy leaves these out. I imagine him looking at this and being disgusted that Europeans would portray his beloved Arab stories this way. There is also a lack of reverence in the story. Many of the tales Haddawy presents contain at least one praise to God whether it is through the narrator themselves or one of their characters.

However, I can also see European readers delighting in the familiarity of humor and themes present in these stories. While they oft turned to the Nights for an Oriental escape to a far-off land of magic and mystery, these tales give them something to relate to and remind us that everyone in the world occasionally laughs at a fart joke.

Not Quite Disney’s Aladdin

I’m guessing there have been several attempts to make 1001 Nights more intriguing to the young adult crowd. I found one that was assigned to me in middle school particularly interesting. The Storyteller’s Daughter by Cameron Dokey tries to stay true to the original description of Scheherazade instead of adopting the seductress “Princess Jasmine” character that has captured the attention of western audiences.

Shahrazad is the blind daughter of the royal vizier and a legendary storyteller who is thought to be the greatest storyteller of all time and savior of her kingdom. Her moment of heroism arrives when the king (after discovering his wife is plotting against him and is cursed him to life without love) declares that he will marry a new women once a month and kill her the next day unless a woman volunteers to be his wife, then all the women after her will only be imprisoned. Clever Shahrazad volunteers and enraptures the king by telling an endless story that also makes him reveal his insecurities to her. They fall in love and Shahrazad saves the king from a second plot to overthrow him.

I like this version because Shahrazad is portrayed as clever and able to overcome a situation in which the odds are clearly stacked against her. The king cares little for her beauty, but loves her sharp mind, good heart, and ability to comfort him. Dokey keeps the theme of a frame story alive, but in a simple and subtle way that is easy for young readers to understand. Although western orientalist ideas still find their way into the story, they do so without sexualizing Shahrazad or completely brutalizing the king and creating a backwards society. Only in descriptions of clothing and palaces does this image of luxury become prevalent. In Dokey’s defense, it is likely that an Arabian king would have these opulent furnishings.

Here’s a link to a summary and study guides if you want to read more: